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Harassing Latin intellectuals

The case of Angel Rama ought to be an embarrassment to the Reagan administration and to the United States. The University of Maryland has been fortunate to recruit Angel Rama, one of Latin America's most renowned writers, as a tenured professor of Latin American literature, but the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) has denied him permanent residence status because they say he is a communist or a subversive. He is neither. The only thing subversive about his case is the way the government has behaved in denying the US of his talent and him of his right to confront his accuser.

State Department officials claim to be sympathetic to Rama's case but say that they cannot make the decision on his status; this is the jurisdiction of INS and Justice. INS and Justice officials claim to be sympathetic but say their hands are tied; there are intelligence reports which suggest that the criterion - a communist or a subversive - applies to Rama, and they are in no position to judge the quality of the intelligence reports. Nor will anyone let Rama know what is in the reports, although he swore under oath that he is neither a communist nor a subversive.

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The State Department says that the reports are the CIA's, not its own; and it cannot overturn the CIA. The CIA says that it has nothing to do with immigration cases and, of course, will not comment, let alone confirm or deny intelligence reports, but as a matter of principle that it will stand behind its reporters.

Certainly newspapers can appreciate their dilemma. The President of Colombia, who knows and respects Latin America's great literary figures, raised this particular case when President Reagan visited Bogota in December and Reagan promised that he would look into it. But the first his staff members heard about this conversation was when they read it several weeks later in the papers.

A general principle is at stake. Rama's case is not unique; many of Latin America's leading intellectuals - including Nobel Prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes - are harassed by the INS because US intelligence agencies are sometimes unable to distinguish between a social democrat and a communist, between criticism and subversion, and many in the Reagan administration either do not see the difference or aren't willing to say they do.

One of our major problems in Latin America stems from the fact that many intellectuals - and the millions of people influenced by them - have a fixed image of the US as an insensitive, cold-war giant. The best way to alter this misperception is to challenge it directly by dialogue; instead, we keep reinforcing it and denying ourselves the chance both to influence their thinking and make US policy more relevant to their idealism and their concerns.

When I worked in the National Security Council, one of Latin America's most brilliant social scientists came to me with a similar problem. He is a solid democrat, who is currently a senator in his country, but each time he came to the US in response to invitations to lecture he had to pass through a terrible bureaucratic gauntlet because similar ''intelligence'' reports labeled him a communist or a subversive. This, I knew, was absolutely ridiculous, and asked to see his file.

Though I was then working in the White House (sometimes I felt it was because I was in the White House), it was still difficult to receive a satisfactory response from the bureaucracy. However, eventually, I saw his file, and all of us agreed it was filled with nonsense. The key report was hearsay that my friend had once attended a Communist Party meeting in Brazil. It turned out that he was teaching in England at the time. We threw out the file, and he is free of visa problems now. It is the US that has benefited.

I have been told by a senior official who has had access to Rama's file that it is composed of reports of similar quality.

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Recently, when the Paraguayan dictator Alfredo Stroessner exiled another great Latin American writer, Augusto Roa Bastos, a suspicious CIA report surfaced in Asuncion indicating that Roa had gone to Cuba twice in the 1960s. This report bears a striking resemblance to the others since it is inaccurate (he never went), but also because the administration refuses to confirm or deny its authenticity. By its silence, however, the administration has made itself an accomplice to Stroessner's action.

In the course of reexamining the immigration laws this session, Congress ought to review the entire ideological exclusion - Section 212(a)(28) of the 1952 McCarran-Walter Act. After reviewing Rama's case, and granting him permanent residence, the administration should look through the files on Latin America's intellectuals. It will find that many contain reports from the 1950s and 1960s when an earlier generation did not know the difference between social democrats and communists. The Rama case offers the Reagan administration a chance to demonstrate it has learned the difference.

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